How hard was it to condense such a large work into 190 pages?
It was difficult to pick the episodes, to boil things down, to do without 95 percent of the work that I slaved over for 25 years. But I thought it was worthwhile. I kept thinking of all the teachers over the years who have said that the storytelling approach to history was best, but that my books were too long for many students.
I thought it was necessary exercise. It made me really think about what was essential and what I was leaving out and how to give some sort of representative feel of that era. One of the toughest parts was the chapter about the middle Selma march. I had originally devoted 300 pages to Selma. Now I have just four or five pages focusing on that middle march.
You can always just summarize, but that sacrifices what the teachers and I believe is the advantage of teaching history with storytelling. There was blood on the floor. It wasn’t easy, but I’m glad I did it.
You’ve already devoted 25 years of your life and 2,300 pages to researching and writing about the Civil Rights Movement, but you’re still not done. What is it about this time in history that keeps compelling you to return to it?
I think that the lessons go very deep about what it means to be a citizen. Growing up a white southerner assuming our history was our treasure, it took me a long time to begin to see racial differences have always been at the heart of whether or not we’re going to live up to the promise of equal citizenship.
Black people in the fifties and sixties, they did what the founding fathers did. They pushed unjust hierarchy, subjugation politics in the direction of equal citizenship. It was hard for most Americans to recognize that they weren’t just doing something for themselves. They were doing something for all of us. In that sense, they were leaders for the whole country. I still don’t think that idea has sunk in for many people. I get a lot of push-back on that. Some people think the anniversary of the march is just a day for black people to celebrate a victory, to celebrate things that are no longer pertinent. It’s for everybody.
Race has always been at the center of what we mean by equal citizenship, and it still is.
Follow Jake New on Twitter at @eCN_Jake.